One of the great things about going to GovCamp is that you never have to apologise for talking about stuff that might cause people in your regular working environment to look at you blankly. And since I’d travelled up to London with one of those niggling “what if?” questions in my head it felt logical to pitch a session on it and see if I could find some answers.
It’s partly a bit worrying and partly a bit reassuring to know that many others at the event were as clueless as me, but also as excited as I was about the vague possibilities of something emerging in the years to come around one of the most interesting new mash-up technologies of our time: the Blockchain.
Now, you may not know what this is. You may have heard of the virtual currency Bitcoin – and if not, you might enjoy reading the comprehensive FAQ on it – suffice to say that it is blockchain technology that underpins Bitcoin and its many brother and sister alt-currencies. Personally I think Bitcoin is interesting but not interesting enough for me to actually own some. It is the block chain that I find most fascinating because it can formally encode a kind of distributed networked governance.
OK, so that’s a kind of a mouthful as well. I’ll try and unpack this.
The BitCoin block chain forms a kind of transaction log of all the things that have been bought and sold using the virtual currency. and it does this without a central authority controlling it. I have been wondering what other things might be similarly persuaded to work with a central authority controlling them. If money can be controlled without a central bank, then the sky is the limit – all publc services, the people who work there, all the things communities need, all can – in theory – be easily organised and accounted for without the controlling bureaucracy of a local council, for example. It doesn’t mean that the council doesn’t get involved, it just means that technology takes those bits out that don’t add any value.
And here’s where I start to get all starry-eyed and the people who know me well say things like “yes, dear, would you like a hot chocolate? You seem tired.” Obviously there’s a number of logical leaps I’ve made there without the wretched inconvenience of having to test any of them on real situations.
So back to #ukgc15 and the session I pitched. I had a good turnout at it – nearly 20 people, with not many dropouts. It became clear that there wasn’t a huge technical understanding of blockchain tech in the room (a really good primer can be found here: https://www.igvita.com/2014/05/05/minimum-viable-block-chain/ ) but all concerned went away having pledged to read up on it and we started to think of some early use cases. It also emerged that one council (I won’t name them, they can add a comment if they wish to be identified) were already accepting Bitcoin in payment for some services. Early potential use cases included:
- community-run libraries
- e-portfolios for education and training
- activity logging for staff
- open data transaction records
- De-centralised identity (already here in the form on OneName)
We wanted things that weren’t too critical as a failure couldn’t mean a crisis for anyone. There is code already on Github (link) to create a so-called “genesis block” and start your own blockchain. I’m thinking of prototyping one or more of these use cases and seeing what the limitations and opportunities are.